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The galloping hooves echoed throughout the courtyard seconds before the fiery horse appeared. By fiery, I don’t mean a red horse, but a horse that appeared to be flaming. I could totally see him painted across the side of an F-150 or the rear window of a vintage Bronco. He was fabulous!
With skeletal hands and the predictable black, hooded cape, the rider had to be Death. He pulled the steed up short, making it snort black smoke, and dismounted with an impressive leap to the asphalt. I returned to my story on the computer. These daydreams of mine are so freaking vivid.
It was a few moments before I realized that the knocking was on my apartment door. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Whoever was rapping was quite eager for my attention. I don’t normally hear anything from my office. Peeking through the peephole, I couldn’t believe it. Death was rapping at my door.
“Death?” I stage-whispered.
“Yes,” he replied, staring straight into my eye, his own black as anti-matter, or so I imagined. “Please open your door.”
I shook my head, though he couldn’t possibly see me.
I stopped shaking my head.
He continued, “I prefer you open your door, so that I don’t have to rip it off. I didn’t come her to commit vandalism.”
He stood still and quiet while I opened the door slowly. Probably I needed to invite him inside, so I waved my hand in a vague, step inside gesture. He dropped his head in a gentle, thanking motion, and walked down the hall into my living room, settling on my purple sectional. Death pet my couch and nodded, with a skeletal grin. “Nice sofa. Purple is my favorite color.”
I stared at him. Then I asked him if he wanted something to drink. He requested milk, so I poured him a tall glass. Death wanted his milk warm, so I transferred it to a large mug and nuked it. When he placed his finger bones on his skull chin, I wondered out loud what he needed, and he requested hot sauce for his milk. After I handed him his milk, he dumped in a shitload of hot sauce, stirred it briskly, handed the bottle back to me, and sipped his milky, orangesicle-colored drink.
He gestured to me to have a seat, so I sat on the edge of my yellow-print, slipper chair across from him. Death grinned, which looked like a grimace, but I could tell he was getting comfortable, sliding down and leaning back into the fluffy pillows, tilting his drink carefully. A conversation was looming—I could feel it like a storm coming. As I watched him sip his fiery drink, I realized Death had no smell.
“Well,” he said after finishing his milk and smacking what should have been his gums, “Clack, clack!”
“Do you have to take me now?” I asked, mentally calculating what I could resolve before I was snatched away by Death: call my mother and tell her I love her, feed the cats, start a load of laundry for the hubs, and sillier stuff, even locking the cats in another room so they wouldn’t eat me.
He sat up and clasped his bony fingers. “I’m afraid so.”
“But can’t we talk about it? Like in the movies, negotiate…you can take my husband. Hahaha!” I’m a shit wife, but I was only joking, right?
“I could, but it’s not really a fair trade, since he has three more decades allotted him, and you’d be those three decades without him. Is that what you want?”
I shook my head. That would be awful. I was not the best at taking care of myself, an epiphany that rattled my brain in that moment. Think, think, think! “What else can I offer?”
“You have four cats. I could take one. Choose.”
I actually gasped. “But-but-but they’re my babies.” My mouth hung open and I couldn’t close it.
“I know. Negotiation requires sacrifice.” He placed his glass on a coaster and leaned back into the couch. “No worries. I have time. My next appointment is this evening at six.”
One tear rolled down my face and onto my hand as I snurfled to contain myself. I could feel my chin quivering, which I absolutely hated. Loathed is the word, I told myself.
“You’re not even thinking about it. Self-loathing is pointless, in any case.” He stood up. “Ah, I do love high ceilings. Those eight foot ceilings suck, don’t they? I hate scrunching down, kills my back.” He walked to the hall as I held my breath in disbelief that Death was leaving my home without me. Large cracks startled me and I turned to see the excessively tall, dark-cloaked skeleton twisting and turning.
Prompted to continue being the hostest with the mostest, I jumped up and followed him to the door, where he turned to me and informed me, “You’re smart. Cats are a great bartering tool. One cat gives you not only forty more years, but it adds that extra decade to your husband’s life span to match yours, so that you’ll die days apart. Romantic, eh?” He winked. He actually winked at me. Like a joke.
That evening, I asked the hubs, “If you had to give up one of our cats, which one would you choose?”
“Why would you ask me that? What a stupid question!” He turned back to his book, holding it up in front of him to emphasize the fact that he was now ignoring me purposely. I sighed and returned to my own reading.
Three weeks later, my littlest muffin was hit by a car. Four weeks later, my sweetest muffin contracted leukemia. I held my breath mentally all the time, fearful of losing all of them. Death was cheating me. He was a cheater. Death was a cheater. Cheater, cheater, cheater! I told everyone. They agreed.
When I finally stopped expecting Death to visit my home again, the hoofbeats cannoned into the courtyard, and the fiery steed was brought to an abrupt halt. Half a minute later, the knock on my door told me Death was here to have another conversation. It took all my effort to not wet my pants. I strode swiftly to the door before I lost my nerve.
“I’m sorry. I won’t say it again. I’ll do whatever you say. Just please stick to our deal.” Tears were flying everywhere as I screamed apologies and begged him to just go away.
“May I come in?”
I nodded and moved aside. He strolled to the living room and plopped on the sofa.
“Ah, that’s nice. I do so wish that I could come for a real social visit. Your home is so welcoming.” He gestured to the yellow chair, so I sat, sniffling up mucus noisily, choosing not to care at all of propriety. Death pointed to the fridge; well, his finger bones sort of curved down in the direction of the fridge. Using his other hand, he straightened the finger and waved it again.
I heated some milk and brought it and the hot sauce. He stirred the hot sauce longer than he needed to, while he sighed and groaned and moaned. He set everything on the coffee table and leaned forward, picked up the drink, glugged it, and proclaimed, “Fantastic!” Setting it down, he said, “Listen, I don’t cheat. It really pisses me off that you’re telling everyone I’m a cheater. It’s a goddamned job. I’m not an asshole. It’s just my fucking job, okay?”
I nodded, but heard myself say, “But you took two of my babies,” continuing to nod like a dope.
Death sighed heavily, puffing air from what or where I don’t know—he had no lungs that I could see, and I could see through him to his cloak. He pulled it closer around him. Could Death be self-conscientious? I nearly giggled. Lordy, I was easily distracted. “Look, it was Sassy’s time. I had nothing to do with that. It was her fate to die last week from leukemia, for which, by the way, I’m truly sorry. She was a lovely cat, a stately queen in an earlier life, and likely royalty in a future life. Humans won’t be aware of this, of course, since we’re so ignorant.”
“Was. Where do you think Death comes from? Another species? That’s another story, one for a more relevant time, when you need such information, and you will need it, I guarantee it.”
Did Death just threaten me? Warn me? Was I to be the next incarnation? Holy shit! No way!
“Focus!” he said.
“I came here to tell you that I followed our deal by cutting two seconds off Lulu’s leap across the street. She was the sacrifice, not Sassy. I have another appointment, so I can’t linger. Please stop casting aspersions upon my name. It’s fear-mongering, untrue, and can hurt only you in the future. Trust me.”
I nodded and Death left my home quietly, groaning and moaning and twisting and turning to crack his spine. He touched two bony fingers to his browridge and clumped downstairs to fly away on his fiery steed. I watched long after they were gone, contemplating his mysterious words and feeling a bit better about Sassy, who wasn’t cheated after all. Then I wondered where the spicy milk went when he drank it.